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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: The Rise of Photography to an Art

The business potential of the new daguerreotype technology attracted many tradespeople who, once having acquired the right equipment, needed only to acquire a new skill. Even the more amateur photographers could make a profit as itinerant daguerreotypists, selling cheap portraits in one town after another. Most of these former jewelers and druggists lacked any kind of artistic training and their photographs were more affordable than aesthetic. Given the proliferation of mediocre photographs, the money-making motives of many early photographers, and the mechanical nature of their medium, photography was considered inferior to the true arts of painting and drawing.

Mathew Brady was working as a jewel-case manufacturer in New York City in the early 1840s when he learned about the daguerreotype process from inventor Samuel Morse. Brady soon established himself as a portrait photographer with his New York City Daguerrean Gallery. Brady longed to raise the status of photography to an art. He improved the quality of his images to appeal to customers of high taste and sought out only the most esteemed subjects. This collection contains hundreds of portraits attributed to Brady's studios including images of presidents Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan, senators Sam Houston (Texas) and Daniel Webster (New Hampshire), authors Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and celebrities such as Tom Thumb.

Brady never operated the camera himself, but was celebrated as the designer of the portrait, posing his subjects and eliciting the desired expression. Brady was soon heralded as the champion of a growing art form that not only reproduced the subject's image, but also expressed the subject's true character.

By the 1860s, the popularity of celebrity portraits had developed into a craze for collecting small copies of these portraits and organizing them into albums. These small portraits, or cartes-de-visite, sold well, but Brady never liked these cheap copies. He preferred the Imperial portraits he had created when paper photographs replaced daguerreotypes. These large-format portraits were often retouched with inks and paints to give them the uniqueness and status of paintings. The uniqueness of the Imperials gave them a higher value, but one that was not easily marketable. Eventually, Brady's business failed as he refused to put aside his artistic pretensions to cater to middle-class customers.

  • What is the difference between art and a craft?
  • Does the money-making motives of itinerant daguerreotypists disqualify them from the status of artists? How does the creator's motives relate to his or her status as an artist?
  • Is the ability to draw an income from one's craft necessary to qualify it as an art form?
  • What does the fact that Brady was renowned for his design of his portraits but did not have to operate the camera imply about the role of the artist and the definition of art?
  • What is the value of the artistic effort put into the design of a work? What is the value of the effort put into the implementation of the design in crafting the work? Is the value of one greater than the other?
  • What is implied by the fact that the status of daguerreotype portraits was elevated when they were thought to express the subjects' inner characters? Does an image need to have moral value in order to be considered art?
  • Is the status of photography different from that of painting or drawing because the image is created through a chemical and mechanical process?
  • Are the demands upon the photographer different from the demands upon the painter or illustrator? If so, how? Does one medium require more artistic skill than another?